Leaping cats at COTA

Jaguar zooms into Circuit of the Americas for Villain Academy

It's an interesting time for Jaguar.
The British luxury carmaker has had notable successes for the past few years, but up until a few years ago it seemed as if Jaguar was playing by the rules defined by the German luxury car establishment. The products were beginning to arrive, but the identity was still a bit subdued.  
Those days are over.
Jaguar thinks it may have finally latched on what it was that made the marque successful all those years ago, and what makes it different from everyone else today. Those dumb buzzwords that every company likes to throw around — risk-taking, emotional, engaging — those actually describe these cars. Jaguar is quintessentially British, and the brand is eager to put that out there — along with its newly-found sense of mischief
Jaguar came to Austin's Circuit of the Americas to celebrate its villainous side, with a performance driving school called the Villain Academy, and to launch the F-Type R Coupe in the U.S. 
What makes a Villain Academy different from a driving academy? More driving in reverse stunts and J-turns, mostly. And a couple of surprises. 
Here are a few lessons I took away from it.
1. World-class instructors make all the difference
Le Mans-winning Jaguar driver Davy Jones serves as head instructor above a field of race winners and champions across many different motorsport disciplines. Having some of the best drivers in the world on hand to ask questions or get advice from is unbelievably helpful (and entertaining, if you ask me).
2. The F-Type R Coupe rewards smooth throttle inputs
I've driven a number of 500-plus horsepower cars on race tracks, but have rarely encountered such a savage and responsive throttle. Having 502 lb/ft of torque in an instant makes you recalibrate your right foot to be smooth, because the impact, even at low RPMs, can be jarring. The supercharged V8 revs freely and pours on acceleration from any RPM. As you apply power through the apex, the distant corner exits of the widely-paved circuit approach you extremely quickly. 
The introduction of the Coupe to the F-Type line brings not only the Ian Callum-penned, sexy, fastback roofline, but it also brings the 'R'-level performance trim that sits above the V8 S Roadster. Its supercharged V8 makes it 550-hp, 55 horsepower more than the V8 S Roadster.
3. Circuit of the Americas is on par with the world's best tracks
That's not just my opinion, all of the pro driving instructors were enamored with the place. It has become, internationally, a motorsports destination on everyone's list. 
4. Ben Collins is a driving god
Jaguar brought along its stunt driver from its TV ads, more commonly known as The Stig from the UK's TopGear. Ben gave sideways rides in an XKR, performing calm and controlled, tire-shredding slides over and over on a figure 8 skidpad. 
5. Torque vectoring works
The F-Type R uses a trick piece of driving assistance called Torque Vectoring to deliver better handling and stability when you're pushing the car. It applies slight braking to the inner rear wheel during cornering, helping the car rotate. It's subtle, but you notice it, and I found the best way to exploit it was through the esses and into turns 6 and 7. You can carry a lot of speed without braking, and you just make your steering inputs to scrub off speed and let the system touch the rear brakes if you need to lose more speed. It doesn't unsettle the car as much as touching the brake pedal would, because you aren't transferring the weight forward.
6. Adding a roof quiets the exhaust note just a bit
We loved the explosive soundtrack that the F-Type convertible delivers when we drove it last year. The Coupe R sounds just as good, maybe even better, but you won't hear it as well from inside the car. But there's no denying that a half dozen F Type R's blasting down the back straight at COTA sounds like the Battle of Britain flying overhead. 
7. Carbon ceramic > steel
The Villain Academy offered the unique opportunity to evaluate an F-Type with Carbon Ceramic Brakes head-to-head against one fitted with standard steel brakes. Both braking systems offer prodigious stopping power, but carbon-ceramic is said to be better, promising reduced fade, better heat dissipation and less rotating mass.  
How'd they stack up? In a test from zero to about 100 mph to zero, the car with carbon brakes measured (informally measured using the car's built-in G-meter) 1.3g for acceleration and 1.3g for deceleration. The car with steel brakes recorded the same acceleration, but managed only 1.1g of decelerating force under braking. Additionally, the carbon brakes offered a firmer, more solid feel under full braking pressure.
8. Always have an ace up your sleeve
Taking a page from any villain's playbook, Jaguar sprinkled in some surprises over the course of the afternoon. On a day where you know you're going to drive an F-Type around Circuit of the Americas, it's a tall order to add anything else to the schedule. But being a passenger with Ben Collins was an unannounced thrill, and there was one more surprise to come after our hot laps. 
9. Racing drivers do it better
After driving the F-Type on track, we kept our helmets on and jumped into the passenger seats with our esteemed instructors at the wheel. 
Riding with a skilled driver around a course is an incredible thing to experience. The speed they can carry through corners, the smoothness and the car control are awe-inspiring. 
But riding with pros who are racing is entirely different. The car control, speed — all of that is being done in the background. The driver is focused on not giving an inch to the competitors, and using all of the available track real estate to gain an inch on the competitors. The racing line is constantly shifting based on gaps or cars encroaching too close around you. It felt like controlled chaos and my mind could barely process it all. The sight of F-Types packed three-wide and racing down into turn 2 at COTA is something that will stay with me forever. 
10. Anyone can perform a reverse-180° ("J-turn")
A reverse-180°, popularized by '70s police movies and television shows, consists of driving in reverse as fast as you can (in the XKR, it's just under 40 mph), cranking the wheel and spinning halfway around and then continuing in the direction of travel, but driving forwards. It's not something you'll do on public roads, but knowing what you and the vehicle are capable of is something that could mean the difference between an accident or an avoidance out on public roads. 
11. The F-Type R is a riot, but the XFR-S is the nuttiest car in Jaguar's lineup
Sharing the 550-hp V8 from the F-Type R, the XFR-S takes the potent XFR sedan and dials up the crazy. The giant carbon wing (it's optional!), bright paint and blue piping in the interior all say one thing: Jaguar builds the most bonkers performance sedan in the midsize luxury segment. And it'll do 186 mph (same as the F-Type R Coupe). 

12. Reverse gear makes cone-dodging interesting

There was an autocross-type course set up to demonstrate tight, confined driving techniques in the XFR. But to mix it up and add an element of villainy, we were instructed to pull into a coned-off parking space, reverse for 50 yards while making a slight turn, back all the way up to a set of cones and then set off forward again on the rest of the course as quickly as we could. It was a fun exercise, but whenever you're at a race track and you're setting lap times in a parking lot course ... you wish you were on the real race track.  

13. The V6 F-Type models have launch control, but the V8 doesn't
The 8-speed ZF transmission isn't up to the task in the torquier V8 models. 
14. Every car on the road should be available in French Racing Blue
It's actually exclusive to Jaguar's R-S models, but look at it!

15. Jaguar seems content to continue letting the German luxury car establishment be pretty boring

I guess that was their evil master plan all along.